I always feel some apprehension when I go to see a classical play. While I sort of know what I am getting into with a Shakespeare production, the ancient classical plays with their intricate murder plots, complex backstories and lengthy character names can feel out of reach to us non-classical elites.
But my nervousness quickly vanished in watching ‘Murder in Argos’ which was staged for the first time by the Votive Theatre Company at the Keble O’ Reilly Theatre during the 5th week of term. ‘Murder in Argos’ is all about reconnecting the ancient classical world to modern day concerns on the nature of justice, morality and revenge. By transplanting the plot of ‘The Oresteia’ trilogy onto a modern World War context, the play compels us to consider ‘The Oresteia’ from a modern angle. The use of period costumes and the posters on food rationing in the background contribute on a superficial level to this sense of modernity. But as Mary Nicholson, the original author to the script, put it the play is more than ‘an ancient play in a modern dress’. Subtitled ‘a timeless trial’, the play very clearly communicates its intention to show that, regardless of what era you are born into, an individual must face judgement for their choices made in the past.
This core message only makes itself obvious once the play is set in motion. For what feels like an agonising few minutes, the stage is filled with silently still actors. While the silence generated confused muttering from the other audience members around me, I thought the discomfort worked well for the week of Remembrance. The play continues to disturbingly set itself apart from its classical predecessor by presenting the themes of ‘The Oresteia’ mostly from the perspectives of Deino the shopkeeper (acted by Alibhe Sweeney), Philyra (Emily Hassan) the female servant and a totally nameless man among others. This eclectic group of characters become the jury to the play’s events and to the central crime at its heart.
I applauded the democratic intention of the play but the stunning aristocratic performances of Clytemnestra (played by Rosa Calcraft) in a dazzlingly resplendent red suit) and Agamemnon (played by Michael Freeman) threatened at times to overwhelm my attention and admiration. I was rather sorry that both characters were so quickly killed off given their relative psychological depth compared to some of the other characters. But I enjoyed the return of Michael Freeman to play the God Apollo, even though his role as the trial defence was ironic to say the least.
Given the complexity of criminal action and moral responsibility in ‘The Oresteia’, it can be difficult for any play to stage the trial result so as to give a cathartically conclusive ending. ‘Murder in Argos’ is able to expediently avoid this problem by accepting that justice can never be fully unambiguous and resolvable. By re-enacting its opening in the final scene to the play, ‘Murder in Argos’ opts for a circularity of structure which bleakly implies that the trauma of conflict is doomed to continue perpetually. As such, ‘Murder in Argos’ is unafraid to present its own moral take on ‘The Oresteia’. As one of the most well-worn of classical plays, the experimentalism of ‘Murder in Argos’ is certainly refreshing and provoking. Although its view on human nature felt forcefully pessimistic, the play was not devoid of humour and extravagance to lift you up during the 5th week blues. For me, the courage of the play in confronting sensitive issues of personal trauma, political accountability and social oppression where its greatest success lies. I think the memory of seeing ‘Murder of Argos’ will linger as these themes continue to haunt us in the present day.